Ahead of the Curve
A spinal defect caused Newsnight's Madeleine Holt years of pain - she even wore a back brace on TV. Then she found a radical new treatment. By Esther Walker
'I have been on a seven-year back odyssey,' says Madeleine Holt, as she hangs from a set of wall bars to demonstrate her daily back exercises. "When I was 14 and diagnosed with scoliosis, I felt quite excited - I was special. But then later on, I realised what it really meant."
What it would mean for her was years of chronic neck pain, thousands of pounds spent searching for a cure and a whole year of wearing a brace round the clock - even on television for her job as Newsnight's culture correspondent.
Scoliosis - an abnormal curvature of the spine - affects three or four children in every 1,000. It gets worse with age and can be identified by the Adam's Forward Bend Test, which used to be common in school medical exams; the patient bends at the hips, with the feet together and the arms hanging down. The tell-tale sign of scoliosis is when one side of the back is higher than the other.
Scoliosis is more common in girls, who account for eight out of 10 cases; there is also a genetic link, with 25 per cent of sufferers having a relative with spinal curvature. The measurement of the curvature is called a Cobb angle, an angle of 10 per cent being mild and 90 per cent severe.
The traditional treatment for scoliosis is a back brace, which limits the angle of curvature, or, in more extreme cases, surgery to insert metal rods in the spine. The latter became more commonplace after the invention of the Harrington Rod, which was inserted into the back and fused to the spine, holding it straight. Although modern implants are more flexible and are extendable, surgery for scoliosis carries the same risks as any other.
"I was fine until I was 27," says Holt, now 42. "I was working as a reporter for the BBC, and there was a lot of standing around and then sitting at a computer. Considering my condition, it was probably the worst job I could have had. I started to get chronic pain in my neck and upper back, which would start after I had been sitting or standing for 20 minutes. The only thing that helped was either a hot bath or a stiff drink."
By the time she was 34, the pain was unbearable and, worried that it would be difficult to have children and continue working with the condition, she embarked on a mission to find an effective treatment. "I found a clinic in Louisiana, which promised to eliminate pain and straighten your spine. I went to the States four times and spent thousands of pounds having a fibreglass brace fitted from my hips to my shoulders, which I wore for 18 hours a day. I would wear it while I was interviewing people on television."
After a year, this had little effect, so Holt went back to the NHS. "The consultant laughed when he saw the brace, and said that scoliosis doesn't cause pain; he said that any pain I was feeling was psychosomatic. Then he asked me if I was single or depressed. I was certainly depressed after seeing him."
Holt also went to Australia to try foot orthotics, and even bought a hydraulically powered handset, which had some effect, but didn't eliminate the chronic pain in her neck.
Then last December, Holt found out about a new clinic, called Scoliosis SOS in Suffolk, which offered the Katharina Schroth method, a physiotherapy-based set of exercises to "re-educate" the back muscles. Once they are taught the techniques, the patient must do half an hour a day of maintenance exercises.
The clinic was set up last year by 19-year-old Erika Maude (see box, below). Maude was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 11 and found the Schroth method so effective that she established a clinic in Surrey. It treats up to 35 patients, of all ages and with varying degrees of scoliosis.
Dr Olga Gronowska-Szczecina has been working at the clinic since it opened. …